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Early civilizations
Middle Ages
     Plainsong to polyphony
     A keyboard for strings

16th - 17th century
18th century
To be completed

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Plainsong: from the early Christian era

Apart from the few Greek fragments, the earliest music to have survived is the plainsong of the medieval Christian church. Given an official form in the 6th century, in the papacy of Gregory I, it is known now as Gregorian chant.

Its roots are very much earlier. It derives from the chants used for the biblical psalms in Jewish synagogues in the early years of Christianity. The first Christians are Jews, so they worship in the manner familiar to them. The Jewish liturgical signs, reminding worshippers of how the chant should go, find their way into the medieval church's Musical notation. And that, in turn, develops into the system by which music is written down today.


From plainsong to polyphony: 6th - 12th century

During the centuries of the early Middle Ages, music - other than in its popular forms in rural communities - remains the preserve of the church and is performed mainly by voice and organ. The organ, known in classical times in Alexandria, is familiar in western Europe from at least the 8th century.

The sound of the organ, with its ability to play widely spaced chords, is increasingly imitated in the music of cathedral choirs. The spread of voices from treble to bass echoes the same spread of organ pipes. At first the different levels of voice usually sing in parallel vocal lines. But as the years go by, increasing complexity is attempted.


By the 11th century the complexity of the music being written for abbey and cathedral choirs is such that it has been given the name polyphony (from Greek for 'many sounds'). The characteristic of polyphony is that each vocal line has approximately the same weight; the different levels of voice are treated as equals, whose paths interweave, rather than any one of them taking the lead and being supported harmonically by the rest.

This remains broadly the musical convention of Europe until the 16th century, though there are developments within the tradition. The most often quoted is an increased subtlety of rhythm associated with a musical pamphlet of about 1320, by Philippe de Vitry, entitled Ars Nova (New Art).


A keyboard for strings: 1397

In a manuscript of 1397 it is reported that a certain Hermann Poll has invented a clavicembalum or harpsichord. In doing so he has adapted the keyboard (long familiar in the organ) to the playing of strings. Whether or not Poll is its actual inventor, the harpsichord rapidly becomes a successful and widespread instrument. It stands at the start of the tradition which will eventually make keyboard music a part of everyday life.

But the harpsichord has one limitation. However hard or softly the player strikes the key, the note sounds the same; the action merely releases a device to pluck the string. For playing soft or loud, a further development is needed - the pianoforte.


Meistersinger: 14th - 16th century

From the 14th century there develop, in German towns, guilds devoted to the writing and singing of songs. Their members, mainly consisting of craftsmen and tradesmen, believe themselves to be the heirs of the courtly Minnesinger. It is more probable that their origin lies in groups of lay singers trained to take part in medieval church services.

Certainly the musical tradition of the guilds (who call themselves Meistersinger, or master singers) derives ultimately from Gregorian chant. And the main events of the Meistersinger calendar, their singing competitions, are held in church.


By the late 15th century a stultifying conservatism characterizes the guilds, with every aspect of composition and performance stipulated in very precise rules. But a new lease of life is provided by some degree of relaxation, in a reform which begins in Nuremberg.

This change makes possible the climate in which Hans Sachs, a shoemaker of Nuremberg, becomes both the most successful Meistersinger (author and composer of more than 4000 mastersongs) and a leading popular poet. Hans Sachs first becomes famous with a verse allegory of 1523 praising Luther as Die Wittembergisch Nachtigall (the Wittenberg nightingale).


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